Cook Islands: Thirteen Years Later

Cook Islands: Thirteen Years Later
Cook Islands

Ignoring the sage counsel of Thomas Wolfe, who said “you can never go home again,” we returned to the Cook Islands after a thirteen year absence. As it turned out, he had a point.

Rarotonga remains lovely and the lagoon is actually a bit healthier than it was back then. However, coral bleaching has hammered all area of the Cooks, from Mangaia to Rakahanga. The people are still pleasant – among the nicest in the Pacific – although the smiles are less frequent and a certain jaded perspective has taken hold.

Prices have increased dramatically ($250 NZ for Little Poly), as have the availability of accommodations. I admit it, for the first week of our trip, we checked out higher-end places – encroaching middle age and new liquidity probably had something to do with it.

We stayed at four different places.

  • Muri Lagoon View Bungalows (up on the hill, nice, new units with fans and verandahs at $100 NZ
  • Muri Beach Hideaway (on the beach near Vara’s, unfortunately, but great bungalows with kitchens, ceiling fans and decks, not to mention a wonderful owner, Pauline, who adopted us into her family – even when we were staying somewhere else at $220 NZ
  • Shangri-La (decent units on the beach, self contained) at $190 NZ
  • Takituma, sluttish luxury for three nights where we secured a “studio” – as big as any room we stayed in – for $200 NZ.
  • Television and tourism have seriously impacted the Cooks, as they have every other island nation I have ever visited. Quite sad and probably unavoidable. The fishing is a shadow of what it was, the sea being mined by those bloody Asian longliners (the Raro paper actually printed a letter from me on the subject). Greed is killing off the fishery, as money is eroding the culture.

    Tourists stand on coral heads, walk around town in bathing suits, even topless action can be seen on the beach. I was shamed by all of it. There are a lot of tourists taking their keys from the lowest common denominator of their own pop cultures.

    Raro remains a good getaway for a tropical no-brainer, or for travelers seeking decompression before heading on … but it ain’t what it was.

    Aitutaki. What a catastrophe! The lagoon AND the area outside the reef is hammered, fish numbers down dramatically from 13 years ago – overfished and then some.

    Sluttish luxury has gone ballistic with Pacific Resort ($500-1000 U.S./night) and Pearl Beach as bad or worse – filled with Americans who like their vacations just like they would be in the U.S. or Cabo. Why do these people travel?

    There was no phone service on Aitutaki 13 years ago – now there are internet cafes. I have never seen things change so fast. More tourists in town virtually naked, blissfully ignorant, uncaring, or both. More smiles than on Raro, but cultural erosion to beat the band. One Foot Island has turned into a second city – several boats at a time, slicked out pavilions, a far cry from the little bush island we remembered.

    All those “catch your lunch” outings have hammered – and I mean hammered – the fish population. I knew it could not sustain what was occurring in 1987. I am sad to see I was right. Stayed at Maina Sunset – good pool, self contained, for $150 NZ – a deal. John is a fishing guide who works out of there. He was great.

    The bonefishing is around but the natives are netting them to beat the band. They are killing off an incredible monetary resource (see Bahamas, where one of their coins is of bonefish). I secured food poisoning at the place in the harbor, good meals elsewhere, including an Island Night buffet at the Pacific Resort that was extreme gluttony (someone invited us and paid for it, really).

    Unlike Raro and Aitutaki, Atiu seems to have changed little in the last decade plus. The smiles come easily, the people are gracious, the children fascinated by your “differentness.” The island remains undeveloped, and from our perspective, quite interesting. It is not a hot spot of tourism unless you are easily entertained – like the bush, birdwatching, walking, or chatting with folks – you will be bored out of your mind.

    The one change is in the Tumunus, or bush beer schools. The missionaries stamped out kava use in the Cooks as part of their overall guilt trip in the mid-1800’s, but bush beer remained. Like kava, it was always a “men only” thing, and has great rituals associated with it.

    This is not a basic bar scene, rather, a place where men gather to socialize and discuss the village and the world. It has, however, changed greatly in the last few years, as tourist women started “demanding” (the words of natives, not mine) to participate. As a result, it has lost much of what it was, just like the kava ceremony has in the rest of the Pacific. I find this unspeakably sad.

    It is bad enough to see mindless tourists who know nothing of the culture walk into town wearing bathing suits but to see the same lack of understanding exhibited at a Tumunu is just too much. There remain two genuine Tumunus on Atiu, strictly male, by invitation only. I secured my invitation inadvertantly at the gracious hands of my partner, Karen, who, when asked by a native woman if she was going to a Tumunu, said she did not feel it would be culturally appropriate. That lady lit up like a candle!

    Karen was embraced and I was immediately set up with her husband who took me to his a night later. The men were so grateful and pleased by our joint sensitivity. Wonderful, genuine, great memories. Most tourists would have completely ruined it. I was blessed!

    For the more sensitive among you, if you go to Atui and are female, please consider passing on the Tumunu, even if, like one woman we met said, “I really enjoyed it.” That, of course, is all that matters – NOT.

    We stayed at Atiu Villas, formerly the Atiu Motel – five A-frames built of native materials, self contained and stocked with food (which you are charged for if you use). The only place to eat on the entire island remains the restaurant at the motel. They do a good job – decent food, massive servings.

    The lodging itself is just OK. It reminds me of the place we had in Belize – charming, but rough around the edges. The lighting is poor and there is no shortage of mosquitoes where Dengue fever has occurred (trust me on this, if you have had it, you never want it again). The double doors out onto the deck have no screens, so you have to close them at night or be consumed, and it can get very muggy and hot at three in the morning. The fans are old and basic – no ceiling fans.

    Roger, who owns the place and has been there 25 years, is a wealth of information and does a great familiarization tour upon arrival at the airport, such as it is. We did a half day eco tour with “Birdman George” who, in spite of his moniker, really knows his stuff.

    We saw fruit doves, Kopeka (a very rare bird being reintroduced to Atiu), a kingfisher that only eats insects. The information on medicinal plants was really interesting, as were his stories. He did a killer wild fruit lunch on the beach – passionfruit, mango, paw paws, coconut, bananas, oranges. He was great, the tour was wonderful and he charged the outrageous fee of $25 NZ!

    There is a new place on Atui I will stay at upon my return, Kopeka Lodge – well furnished, clean, separate bedroom from the main area, full kitchen (including coffee presses – man, have they figured THAT out!) in a pleasant meadow setting – about $100 NZ/night.

    Mauke, Mangaia and Mitiaro are similar – all interesting, easily accessed via plane or tramp steamer/freighter out of Raro.

    The northern atolls – Manihiki, Rakahanga, Penryn, Nassau, Palmerston – if you know me from these boards and want more information, contact me via e-mail. For everyone else, don’t go there! It is very difficult, hard to get to, no services to speak of, occasional power, a total lack of sluttish luxury. You’ll hate it. Trust me. Go to Raro instead.

    For the travellers among you, however, with cultural sensitivity and an IQ in triple digits, I’ll be back up there next year for two months. Capiche?